How to be a kickass nonprofit executive director
March 31, 2014 9:28 PM   Subscribe

JobbyJobFilter: Of the highly effective, strategic and thoughtful nonprofit Executive Directors you know, what in particular did they do that made you think they were so good?

Over the past ten years, I've been a communications director for an issue advocacy group (7 years) and a business manager for an arts organization. I really want to take the reins somewhere myself soon (it will not be where I am currently working) and be incredible at it.

I already have a good sense of the range of responsibilities that fall to an ED and the core competencies I will be expected to bring to the table. Right now I'm looking to the green more for subjective thoughts about solid, effective EDs that you've worked for or with, or know, or are - even better if you can speak from the perspective of a board member. In carrying out all the things an ED takes care of, what were their best practices? In your opinion, what did they do that made them so good?
posted by deliciae to Work & Money (7 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The biggest thing good EDs that I've worked with have done is delegate and train staff. Not just be a task master, but to work with staff, volunteers, and interns to teach them how the organization operates and what goals need to be reached. Involve them in the planning process (where relevant) and make sure they have opportunities to take on projects vs tasks. As a board member, I enjoy playing the role of supporting all organizational staff vs just having back and forths with the ED. YMMV of course. Congratulations and good luck!
posted by msfrizzle at 10:39 PM on March 31, 2014 [1 favorite]

Seconding msfrizzle - delegate and trust, and make sure there are opportunities for good staff to "own" a project. The best ED I ever had was someone who did this, and it helps avoid burnout. And god, yes, let the staff be involved in the planning process.

Also, awareness of the context you're working within, the policy environment at all levels of government, and how your organisation fits; and the willingness to work with other organisations and listen to them.

And yay you! The sector needs more good people who want to be incredible and provide great outcomes for their organisations.
posted by andraste at 11:25 PM on March 31, 2014

A good CEO/ED takes the responsibility for failures, gives others the credit for successes, hires and surrounds him/her self with mangers who are at least as smart/sharp as he/her is, delegates, trusts, trains and is impeccably fair. A good CEO realizes it is not popularity contest, is willing to make difficult decisions, disappoint those he/she trusts and likes and can step aside from taking things personally.
posted by rmhsinc at 4:14 AM on April 1, 2014

Is there an opportunity to add some time at a 'for profit' business to your resume?
I often find a bit of a cultural gap between people used to work in the non-profit sector and those with a for-profit background.
I am not making a judgement, but as a board member of a NFP with only previous 'for profit' experience it was eye opening, so I strongly suspect it is equally unusual the other way.
Imagine how much more effective a fund raiser who can draw parallels 'from the trenches'.
posted by bystander at 4:57 AM on April 1, 2014

Laser beam focus on the strategic plan, doing what the community wants, and getting funding after community consensus, because when the funder calls the shots the community gets alientated. Not relying on flow-through project funding to temporarily increase capacity.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:58 AM on April 1, 2014

I'm an ED of a non-profit.

If you don't have one now, you should start working on a strategic plan for the organization. The worst thing most non-profits do is creep their scope (on the basis of it being something that someone needs to do, but unfortunately nobody else is.) This is your best defense against being a mile-wide and an inch-deep.

For me, I walked my board through the process of figuring out what we create (own entirely), support (financially, in time, or just in words) and what we influence (advocacy.) We also figured out how much time we should be spending on each, and how much we do now. It was really helpful - we found we mortgaged our creation time for support of everything in our realm, and the result was slow creation of the very things our association aimed to do.

Check-in often with your stakeholders and your staff. No matter how good you are, without the people around you feeling as though they're involved in the end results, you'll never get buy-in. Give your staff agency in how they do their work, and accountability and reward for the job they do. Learn to recognize burn-out and offer support where you can (afternoon off, etc.)

Finally, fundraising is a full-time job for an ED - but not in the "dialing for dollars" way. You are the primary reputation manager for the organization, and you should be out talking about your work with as broad a group as you can. Be visible at business events - it is more likely, when you end up looking for sponsorship or items, they'll take your call if they think you're a credible and connected person.
posted by rutabega at 6:20 AM on April 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

At the end of the day, an NPO that functions well, has high morale, and achieves its mission is a well funded one. The primary responsibility of an ED is fundraising. It really is. The more money an NPO has, the more it can do and the less anxious everyone is. I've worked at NPOs where everyone walked on egg-shells around the ED because there was the constant threat of layoffs and no-funding for various projects. If you don't have development experience, get some. If you aren't a networker, start. For better or worse, the best EDs are often the ones with the best and richest contacts, or the ability to cultivate them.

Other than that, trust your staff and don't micromanage.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:21 AM on April 1, 2014

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